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Witnesses testify in Pennsylvania school funding lawsuit, decision still weeks away

Carolyn Kaster

On today’s episode of The Confluence: A lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of how the state funds schools is underway, seven years in the making; a new documentary film examines the impact of non-profit hospitals, U.S. health care system and Pittsburgh entities on its patients; and a rundown of the holiday-themed happenings in the region. 

Education funding lawsuit is challenging whether the state is upholding its constitution in providing a ‘thorough and efficient system of public education’
(0:00 - 7:35)

A landmark case is underway in Commonwealth Court on how the state funds school districts. The plaintiffs argue the government has underfunded certain districts so much that the state has violated its own constitution.

The lawsuit was filed in 2014 by six school districts, four parents and two statewide organizations. It was brought against Gov. Tom Wolf, the state legislature and Pennsylvania’s Department of Education.

“The Commonwealth Court originally dismissed the case and said this was outside of its purview, that questions about school funding are best left to the state legislature,” says Mallory Falk, education reporter for WHYY. “But back in 2017 the state supreme court reversed that decision and said this case could move forward.”

Pennsylvania currently ranks 45th in the nation in state funding per pupil, and the state relies heavily on local taxes to fund schools. The plaintiffs argue that tax-funding schools means more affluent areas collect more taxes for schools, and ultimately create achievement gaps.

“[The plaintiffs are] saying the current funding system is both inadequate, there’s not enough money coming from the state, and it's inequitable because of this reliance on local taxes and because of these large gaps between districts,” says Falk.

The defense, however, is arguing the state ranks well in overall spending per-pupil across the commonwealth, when state and local funding are taken into account.

The trial resumes tomorrow and is expected to last eight to 10 weeks.

‘Inhospitable’ film asks who benefits from hospital consolidation, focusing on UPMC health care system
(7:36 - 14:48)

It’s no secret that health care can be dizzying to navigate, but some Pittsburghers had an added headache about two years ago when a state-mandated agreement between insurance providers UPMC and Highmark was about to end.

People feared losing their doctors and specialized care because one system’s hospitals wouldn’t accept insurance at in-network costs from the other.

While that agreement has been extended, a new film, “Inhospitable,” looks at the months leading up to that extension in 2019.

“The film is really looking at this bigger picture of the alarming trend of monopolies in hospitals all over the country, and we looked at this Pittsburgh story because it kind of felt like it was highlighting the collateral damage that is happening with these monopolies,” says film director Sandra Alvarez.

Alvarez says "collateral damage" includes patients who may pay higher health care prices when hospitals consolidate and hospital workers who say they aren’t getting paid enough, despite the system potentially saving money by consolidating hospitals.

UPMC has since raised average service workers' pay, and the entry level pay will be set at $15.75 an hour beginning in January, but Alvarez says union leaders have told her that wage is still not enough.

“This country has not made an effort to make health care simple, it’s so complex,” says Alvarez. “One of the things I learned in making this film is the middle man of insurance makes it so much more difficult because as patients, we are so separated from the cost and what is charged to us.”

The film showed earlier this month at DOC NYC, but Alvarez says a Pittsburgh showing is in the works.

Holiday happenings in the region
(14:52 - 22:30)

Last year, the holidays were very different for Pittsburghers. Maybe you couldn’t make it to the miniature railroad exhibit at the Carnegie Science Center, or the other seasonal traditions that you held dear. But this year, with more people vaccinated against COVID-19, the holidays might look a little more normal.

Kicking off this year was the city’s annual Light-Up Night.

“I love the trees being lit, I love the atmosphere, it's sort of everything that people want to see, they think of in Christmas season, and that's what happens at light-up night,” says journalist and digital media copy editor, Bobby Cherry.

A self-described Christmas aficionado, Cherry runs the “It’s Christmas 365” website, which chronicles Western Pennsylvania holiday celebrations in the winter.

Cherry says one could start the festivities at a museum, visiting the Carnegie Science Center to see the expanding miniature railroad exhibit, or“A Very Merry Pittsburgh” at the Heinz History Center, highlighting city celebrations for various holidays from years ago.

Last year, many took to their own neighborhoods to safely enjoy the light displays, a trend Cherry says he thinks will come back.

“What’s better than getting in your car with your family and driving around, looking at either organized displays or the neighborhood Clark Griswold,” says Cherry, referencing the patriarch of “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” Cherry says his favorites include Maplewood Avenue in Ambridge, and Findlay Township’s Clinton Community Park.

The city is also home to the only permitted replica of the Vatican’s life-size creche in front of the U.S. Steel Tower.

“My favorite thing to do is going there later in the evening when the lights are lit and there's not a lot of people around, and you just get the chance to take it all in and just look at the scene as if they were real people on that display,” says Cherry.

Cherry has documented more regional holiday activities at his website, “It’s Christmas 365.”

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in Monday to Thursday at 9 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts. 

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